Legendary writer and director Paul Schrader’s latest is a tense and twisting psychological drama fronted by a tremendously biting performance from Oscar Isaac. With yet another Schrader protagonist filled with guilt and a haunted past, The Card Counter keeps you on the edge of your seat, not allowing you to know which hand is about to be played next.
Paul Schrader’s career tapestry is one of the finest to behold amongst those of his contemporaries. Having written some of the all time greats, such as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and directed thought-provoking, powerhouse works including Mishima and First Reformed, Schrader has cemented himself as a master of his filmmaking craft. His latest, The Card Counter, follows William Tell (Oscar Isaac), a man with a haunted past, who travels from casino to casino playing poker. During which, he finds a chance to make amends for his past sins after meeting a young boy named Cirk (Tye Sheridan) whose father has a connection to Tell’s former life. It’s evident that Schrader is tapping into similar character psyches that he has in the past. But, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It certainly isn’t broken here, and Schrader continues to perfect his craftsmanship.
While Schrader’s position at the helm of The Card Counter helps to heighten its own stance, it wouldn’t reach the heights it does without Oscar Isaac’s towering lead performance. His turn as Tell is some of his finest acting work to date. At times he’s restrained, leaving only a glimmer of trauma behind his eyes. But once that guilt gets let out, Isaac’s performance is unhinged in the best possible way. There’s one particular moment where Tell performs a mock interrogation on Cirk, and it’s a wonderful showcase of performance. Sheridan can’t quite keep up to Isaac’s level during it, but Isaac commands the entire sequence in staggering fashion.
The cinematography of Alexander Dynan further pushes Schrader’s directorial presence, often finding gorgeous ways of shooting scenes. Yet, Dynan also finds disorienting angles, too. During flashback and memory sequences, Dynan shoots them with a fisheye lens of sorts, which is as disconcerting as it is visually stimulating. Schrader and Dynan work together wonderfully to capture this guilt-ridden, rage-fuelled man that lives his life confined to tight spaces, with gambling being his only sense of escape from the never-ending passage of time. Again, it’s these two, plus Isaac’s illustrious performance, that makes the whole piece click. Take one part out, and the whole deck would collapse. But, together, they build a strong structure of calculated suspense and drama.
Alongside Isaac are performances from Tye Sheridan and Tiffany Haddish. The latter’s performance as La Linda is surprisingly very strong, with Haddish having less of a comedic turn and trying her hand at a more dramatic, grounded role with impressive results. Her and Isaac have a wonderful chemistry that palpitates throughout. However, the came can’t really be said for the former. Sheridan’s character is written really quite nicely, but he just doesn’t quite have the skill to sell it. In a more capable actor’s hands, you’d feel a lot more invested in his character, but Sheridan just can’t quite pull you into what he’s offering. Although, there is also a short but sweet outing from Willem Dafoe as the villainous John Gordo, whose presence is as captivating as ever.
The cinematography of Alexander Dynan further pushes Schrader’s directorial presence, often finding gorgeous ways of shooting scenes.
While Schrader’s script is enrapturing in terms of its exploration of trauma and regret, it does often explore such themes in a surprisingly lazy fashion. For instance, peppered throughout are vignettes of narration from Isaac’s character. Some relate to the nature of gambling and various card games, whereas others feel like nothing more than mere exposition dumps. When someone as accomplished as Paul Schrader is at the helm, you don’t really expect such moments of fairly lazy writing, yet they’re sadly still here. It puts a damper on what is a tight, considered screenplay in its own right, and so it adds little to the film and only really takes away from it.
However, there’s too much good within The Card Counter to let its flaws drag it down. Paul Schrader does retread old ground but he maintains a controlled grip, resulting in a piece that keeps you on tenterhooks throughout, all while providing a wonderful analysis of a fractured man processing his own wrongdoings in an attempt for reconciliation. It might hit some stumbling blocks on the way, but by the time the credits start rolling, Schrader’s film has worked its magic on you. Schrader plays his hand, and while it might not be a perfect royal flush, it’s still more than enough to allow him to collect his winnings.
Ultimately, Schrader’s palpitating direction and Isaac’s magnetic performance proves to be a winning pair. It might not be anything strikingly fresh or unique, and it has issues in terms of how it goes about telling its story, but Schrader’s tense, sharp thriller operates more than well enough to be delightfully gratifying. The Card Counter is dramatic, nail-biting work, helmed by a remarkable director and brought to life by an outstanding lead performance.
Words by Eddie Nourse
Support The Indiependent
We’re trying to raise £200 a month to help cover our operational costs. This includes our ‘Writer of the Month’ awards, where we recognise the amazing work produced by our contributor team. If you’ve enjoyed reading our site, we’d really appreciate it if you could donate to The Indiependent. Whether you can give £1 or £10, you’d be making a huge difference to our small team.